Here at Idlelog we like to keep things classy. In honor of this tradition, I’d like to spend some time tonight, on a Friday night—when the Philistines of the world are out pursuing various immoralities and dancing scandalously to the 2nd and 4th beat of popular music—to invite you to join me in seeking out a more noble tradition.
Here, in this virtual and virtuous space, I’ve lit a fire and found several comfy chairs. Put on a jacket with elbow pads if you have one, and you may smoke your pipe or cigar. I invite you to pour yourself a glass of your favorite drink (mine, I assure you, is nothing more than ginger ale) and we’re going to have a deep conversation about literature.
I had an interesting sort of revelation while a recently acquired library book about Modernism in Literature. The book is structured biographically, telling a story instead of analyzing particular works in-depth, and it focuses on four main Modern writers: Wyndham Lewis, Jame Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound.. It’s a really interesting tale, and I’m learning or re-learning a lot about one of my favorite movements in Literature.
Now, Modernism, as a literary term, refers to the early half of the 20th century—or maybe the middle half (eras are hard to pin down). It’s marked mostly by a sort of disillusionment with Victorian and Romantic Literature and ideas. Until the Modernists, you could say, Literature was about the ideals of nature and society. Think Wordsworth writing about flowers or Dickens writing about people. Everything has a sort of optimism and respectability. The darkest moments are really just moments of tragedy, not Nihilism. (I’m being incredibly general here; of course there were exceptions).
Modernism and the Modernists, however, lost faith in these ideals. In Modernism, there is a rejection of society, government, and religion—at least in their most popular, organized forms. Modernists don’t trust anything anymore. Everything that had been considered solid and immovable for the past few centuries in Western Civilization had been undercut by Marx, Freud, and Darwin.
But at the same time as the Modernists were beginning, there were other writers who continued in the traditions of the Victorian and Edwardian ideas. There were some who held onto dense, respectable novels and formulaic poetry. Some, also, who kept their faith in humanity.
These are some of my favorite authors: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Joseph Conrad, for example. They were writing alongside Modernism, but they defended society and tradition to those who were rejecting it (for the most part). They still managed to discuss some of the themes of modernism, but they still held on to something.
The best way I can think to say it is that these anti-modernists or Other Modernists could still fall in love. The true moderns were often, in my opinion, reduced to using everything they found as a tool for personal gratification or fulfillment. True Moderns could never find any satisfaction or spirituality outside of the individual search for fulfillment. They would chase after the ideal, like Stephen standing in the sea in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but never with the reckless abandonment like the protagonists in The Man who was Thursday chasing Sunday in the final chapters. Maybe I should just say that, for the Modernists, the ideal never became anything more than a symbol; there was never any reality behind it. Or, the reality behind it always dissolved into the merely sensual.
True Moderns would lament the loss of meaning, like Prufrock and Wasteland, but always as if it had been sucked into a black hole instead of merely misplaced. I prefer the writers who would sweep the whole house, looking for the missing coin, instead of those who would use the remaining nine to go buy drinks and commiserate.
But really, I should say that I prefer the ideas and philosophy of the Other Moderns and the Edwardians, and not the writing. The True Moderns kicked the Other Moderns collective butts as far as literature goes. Yeats and Joyce could reject Religion and Society with style, and so could Eliot and Pound. And when I read them I revel in their words—but with only temporary intimacy.
At this point our conversation is interrupted by my three-year-old son, who runs into the room wildly waving a small toy car and dressed in nothing but his underpants.